There is no denying that God, in the Old Testament, commanded the nation of Israel, His chosen people, to exterminate many nations of people. Atheists use this fact to condemn the character of God. They say they refuse to believe in any being that could be so cruel and heartless. The passages that record God’s command to slaughter the Canaanite cities have even caused many Christians some confusion. I probably will not answer every question in this short article, and even some of the answers I give will not satisfy everyone, but I do hope to present a solid biblical argument for the goodness, holiness, love , and justice of our Creator God.
God is Judge, not man
Who is more qualified than the Creator to decide how long one lives? God gave us life, and He has the right to take it away. Here we encounter the issue of authority. Christians believe that all authority belongs to God (Matthew 28:18, Romans 13:1, Colossians 2:10). The non-believer has no objective authority. Their authority is based on the current societal perception of morality. However, what is good and right or what is bad and wrong changes with society’s opinions.
William Lane Craig reminds us God is not subject to our judgment of His actions; He has no moral obligations except to Himself. Humans do not have the right to do whatever we want. Craig writes, “For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God”…God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative” (Reasonable Faith . com; Question and Answer Archive, Question #16).
We must keep in mind, also, that Israel did not decide to exterminate the Canaanites, God did. Israel received direct word from God that they should do this. This was God’s judgment  carried out on the people of Canaan using the chosen people of Israel.
Those on whom God pronounced judgment were wicked
What is right and moral is known to all (Romans 1:18-23), but was rejected by the Canaanites to such an extent that they cut pregnant women open and burned their children as sacrifices to their pagan gods (Leviticus 18:21, 24, 25, 27-30). Other ungodly acts routinely engaged in by the Canaanites included adultery, bestiality, and homosexuality (Leviticus 18:20-30). These people were not clueless about their responsibility to God; rather, they openly mocked His lordship and committed horrible acts that even the most hardened of us would deem worthy of judgment. God, as judge, used Israel to carry out His judgment on these people.
God had given the Canaanites opportunity to repent
Rahab spoke of having heard about Israel’s great God and His mighty miracles. This news had terrified the city of Jericho and Rahab  had put her faith in God (Joshua 2:10-14). It is reasonable to believe that other people had heard what Rahab (and Jericho) had heard, thus giving them the opportunity to repent and be spared. Thus, they were all without excuse for not worshiping God.
The Canaanites had hundreds of years to either repent and follow God or to reject Him and follow idols and false Gods. For the most part, they chose to rebel against God. These nations were cut off to prevent the corruption of Israel and the rest of the world (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). When a nation starts burning children as a gift to the gods (Leviticus 18:21) and practices sodomy, bestiality and all sorts of loathsome vices (Leviticus 18:25, 27-30), they, “…are storing up wrath for [themselves] on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5 ESV). There had been a patient waiting from Abraham’s time “for the sin of the Amorites…[to reach] its full measure” (Toward Old Testament Ethics, Walter Kaiser, Jr., p, 267,Zondervan, 1983). For the Canaanites, it was time for God’s judgment.
The Canaanites were the only people God commanded the Israelites to destroy
Israel was not allowed to treat other nations as they treated the Canaanite cities. Israel was not commanded to deal with all other nations the same way they dealt with the Canaanites. For example, God commanded the Israelites, in Deuteronomy 20:10-15, to offer conditions of peace rather than extermination to all others. However, the verses that follow, namely verses 16-18, disallowed the same offer to be given to Canaan. In fact, the Hebrew wars with other nations (except Canaan) were designed to be only in self-defense (Toward Old Testament Ethics, Walter Kaiser, Jr., p, 267, Zondervan, 1983).
God always offered the possibility of redemption
Every forecast of prophecy of doom came with an implied ‘unless’ attached to it: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10 ESV). A biblical example of this would be God’s treatment of the city of Nineveh . God had decided to judge Nineveh because they were evil (Jonah 1:2). However, the city repented, turned to God, and God did not judge them. Presumably, the Canaanites could have done the same thing. They could have repented of their evil, followed God, and been spared judgment.
Conclusion: What does this tell us about God?
- God considers sin to be a terrible, vile thing. Sometimes we humans view sin too lightly. We think of sin as just little mistakes that God might chuckle at or as something He might shake His head at in disappointment. However, God’s dealings with the Canaanites show us that God takes sin very seriously. It is an affront to His holiness and lordship, and He deals with it justly and with finality. One day we will all stand before God as He judges us.
- God is the righteous judge, jury, and executioner. By this, I mean that not only does God have the right to judge us, but also His judgments are never wrong…He never makes a mistake in judgment. It is God who created us, He gives us our every breath, he set the standards by which we are to live, and He has the right to carry out judgment whenever, wherever, and however He sees fit. To attempt to require God to answer to us is like the pot attempting to pass judgment on the potter (Romans 9:20-22).
- God loves us and is patient with us. God gave the Canaanites hundreds of years to repent and cease their evil practices. They refused and even increased their depravity. The biblical record is clear; God cares deeply for humanity; He has a special tenderness for the poor and downtrodden. He even said He would spare the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if but ten righteous men could be found there. God spared Nineveh when they repented. God saved the Christian-hunting Saul, changed his name to Paul, and inspired him to write much of the New Testament.
- God offered the greatest act of love ever known, when He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to die on a cross for the sins of humanity. Far from being the murderous tyrant that atheists want us to believe He is, God loves us more than we can imagine. God’s attitude towards us it that He, “…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV), and He does not want anyone to, “…perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 ESV).
No matter what God does, all of His actions are guided by His sovereign will and the fact that He, “…so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).
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Resources – The Holy Bible, English Standard Version “Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.